ACLU Says Shawnee Mission School Board Policy Violates First Amendment

Jun 1, 2017

The ACLU of Kansas says a new policy adopted by the Shawnee Mission School Board may violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. It has sent a letter to Board President Sarah Goodburn, urging the board to rescind the policy. 

In its letter, the ACLU highlights an exchange Goodburn had with a parent at a board meeting May 22. At that meeting, resident Jeff Passan raised concerns about an alleged conflict of interest by board member Deb Zila, involving Zila's vote to approve a new district contract with insurance broker CBIZ. CBIZ employs Zila's daughter.

After naming Zila, Passan was interrupted by Goodburn. 

"You got this beforehand? What we can and cannot talk about in open forum? Naming specific people is really not allowed," Goodburn said. 

She was apparently referring to the Board's recently modified guidelines for speakers at a meeting. It says, in part, that speakers should be "civil, use respectful language and refrain from any personal attacks." The policy also states "matters related to a specific student or employee" should not be discussed. 

In a video of the May 22 meeting, Passan looks briefly flummoxed, then responds to Goodburn:

"So, if in the future there is a particular vote which I, as a person who lives in the Shawnee Mission School District, disagree with and want to publicly ask about that, am I not allowed to do that?" he asked. 

Goodburn can be heard on the video responding to Passan, repeating the wording of the guidelines. After Passan interjects that he is "being civil and respectful", Goodburn says: "You can say a 'board member' but a specific board member you cannot say."

The Shawnee Mission Post reported Goodburn later acknowledged Passan had not technically been in violation of the speaker guidelines because Zila is not an employee of the district. 

The ACLU, in its letter, says that's not good enough. 

"People have a well-established First Amendment right to criticize both elected officials and other public servants," the letter says (emphasis by the ACLU). "By prohibiting commenters from discussing "matters related to a specific student or employee", the Board's current guidelines are overbroad and inconsistent with the First Amendment." 

The letter ends by urging the board to "remove the guidelines" and "in the future, refrain from admonishing commenters who mention board members by name." 

In an emailed statement, a district spokesperson wrote the district had received the ACLU's letter. 

"As the Board continues its review of draft guidelines," the spokesperson wrote, "it will take the comments in the letter into consideration as it balances the privacy rights of individual students and employees with the free speech rights of individual citizens."

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle